The Sonoma County Gazette: Community News Magazine
Sonoma County Gazette
| more

Photo Gallery

Sonoma Coast Beach Access Concerns


Sonoma Coast Beach Access Concerns

By Tim McKusick

A local resident posted a short video recently of the beach at Jenner. It was an incredible accounting of an adult Bald Eagle standing on the beach as a California Gray Whale swam in the near-shore waves. Wow!

It reminded me of my family kayaking outing a few years ago in the Russian River Estuary. We had paddled around Penny Island and decided to pull out and have lunch on the beach on the north side of the mouth of the river.

As I ate my sandwich, I wandered over the sand bar to check out the ocean waves. Much to my surprise, right there in the shallows was a Gray Whale about 25’ long! At first I thought this magnificent creature was in trouble, but quickly realized that it was just fine…apparently rubbing itself on the gravel bottom where the fresh river water meets the ocean.

I felt so lucky to have happened upon this amazing ‘nature moment’. The young whale was so close that I could look directly into its eyes and blow hole as it rolled around in the surf. This beautiful encounter went on for several minutes as the whale cruised back and forth at the River mouth.

A couple who happened to be on the Jetty and spotted it were heard shouting in glee. Offshore in the sea stacks, multiple whale spouts could be seen; apparently waiting for this curious teenager to conclude his side trip.

We are blessed to have the opportunities to observe these wonders of Nature, right here in our home county. And equally blessed for not having to ‘feed the meter’ for the privilege. Thanks to local volunteers and organizations such as the Stewards of The Coast and Redwoods (Stewards), the newly rebuilt/refurbished boat launch ramp area, visitor center and public bathrooms on the River at Jenner are Open! Free! No Charge! 

The State Parks system would have closed it long ago for lack of funds at the State level, but the Stewards took it upon themselves to underwrite the upkeep and maintenance of the facility and grounds. Paid for with money from their various fundraising activities, the Stewards are quite successful in keeping these “treasures” open and available for use by all visitors.

Local Stewardship

Stewards of The Coast and Redwoods (Stewards) formerly the Stewards of Slavianka, is a non-profit environmental and interpretive organization that works in partnership with California State Parks in the Russian River District to support volunteer, education and stewardship programs. There are approximately 90 associations like the Stewards throughout the State of California. Each association has a contractual relationship with State Parks and operates on State Parks property to fulfill their mission.

Stewards is doing a fantastic job of keeping Armstrong Woods/Austin Creek Recreational areas open, as well as making sure the Jenner Visitor Center and restrooms at the boat launch are clean and open to the public, but they do not have the capacity to open all of the closed areas along the Sonoma Coast, including addressing the staffing shortages, according to Stewards Executive Director Michele Luna. “That being said, we (Stewards) are doing our best to help State Parks reopen Pomo Canyon Campground this year”, said Luna. (Please visit their website for their full mission/vision statement, history, newsletter and above all to support their noble cause!)

Think of the good will that goes home with each visitor after a day of Estuary paddling and beach combing; stories and images of nesting Great Blue Herons in the riverside tree-tops; recollections of sitting motionless in a kayak as squadrons of Pelicans come in on a glide path directly overhead, elegantly landing just feet away; the image of the entire Estuary-Perched town of Jenner glowing in the setting sun from a vantage point mid-river. Memories. For some it is a once in a lifetime event, returning to their distant homes with Sonoma County holding a special place in their hearts. For others, who are blessed to call this county home, the beaches, forest preserves and river are just a short ride away.

Who’s in Charge

The recent firing of Charles Lester Executive Director for the California Coastal Commission (despite an enormous public outcry) has some worrying that many of the remaining directors may be more developer-friendly, and that Lester’s firing should be a warning that the quest for more access and other coastal protections for the public are no longer a high priority of the CCC.

The agency that decides what gets built and where along the California coast is facing questions about transparency after it pushed out its top executive in a closed-door vote and without clear explanation of why the change was being made. Unfortunately, with California coastal property being among the most sought-after in the world, developers have huge returns on the line, making this power-play a true high-stakes battle between developers and the public’s right to access.

Lester’s firing comes at a time when the State, who is seeking to install ‘iron rangers’ and collection kiosks along the Sonoma Coast, has appealed to the Coastal Commission to force this ‘pay for play’ policy on those seeking quiet enjoyment of the public lands along our fair coast.

Public Input

At an open house put on by the California State Parks February 22 (even though announced at the last minute), hundreds of citizens attended and overwhelmingly (and very vocally) opposed any attempts to erect automatic pay stations and kiosks on currently free beaches and parks. 

Representatives of Coastwalk, Surfrider Foundation Sonoma Chapter, Fifth District Supervisor Efren Carrillo’s Office, Sonoma County Conservation Council, and Second District Assemblymember Jim Woods office all spoke out as opposing the State Parks plan at the event. “This has not been thought through by anyone with local knowledge,” said Richard Charter, 40 year coastal resident and senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation.

The attending public was visibly frustrated with the proceedings which had failed to include public comment as part of their agenda. At the planning session in the Supervisor’s chambers on February 24, California Coastal Commission staff members Jack Ainsworth, Dan Carl and Nancy Cave met with the public and allowed their comments to be recorded for the record.

At a time where the State Parks has wrestled control of our beach access decisions away from local authorities, but still has many beaches and wilderness areas gates tightly locked to the public, and seems to be trying to manage our rugged coastline in the same manner as the SoCal Beaches, it is imperative that we let them know that our coast is more than just a parking lot to be charged admission for.

PUBLIC Beaches

It is more than local pride which motivates the volunteers from Surfrider Foundation, Coastwalk and the Stewards of Coast and Redwoods (and all of the others) to do their work. To some, this is sacred land, and should be treated as such. To others, it boils down to the public’s right to enjoy public lands. To all, the importance of saving these last threads of our natural forests and beaches for future generations to enjoy is obvious. They understand the healing, nurturing of spirit that takes place during a simple walk on the beach or through a stand of old growth redwoods. The right to quietly enjoy an ocean sunset should be a spontaneous free event, no matter your income or ability to feed a meter.

Sonoma Coast Surfrider Foundation, our coastal watchdog and environmental heroes, whose programs and campaigns to involve and educate the public in all areas relating to clean water and a sustainable eco-system, are staunch proponents of free public access to our beaches. They stress the need for all of us write to our legislators and let them know that funding to maintain free access to our beaches should come through legislation, not parking meters. Visit for updates and information.

Time after time, we the citizens of Sonoma County have shown the world that we realize this special place that we call home is worth protecting for future generations. We tax ourselves in order to preserve open space for all to enjoy. We held off huge forces to keep a nuclear power plant from being built on iconic Bodega Head. We held off developers who had plans to dredge the Russian River and create a deep-water mooring yacht harbor at Jenner. We have a world-class 6,000 acre coastal nature preserve, with salmon and steelhead spawning streams being restored because we made it happen.

Often in ‘against-all-odds’ situations. We find ourselves once again in that position. Public rights are on the chopping block, if CA State Parks succeeds in installing metered parking along our rugged coastline. Perhaps if State Parks would release a budget, concerned local citizens and volunteering organizations could find a way to meet the challenge without the inelegant metered approach.


A final hearing for the Iron Rangers Proposal will be held between April 12 and 14th in Santa Rosa. The agenda will be set by March 25 and can be found at Those interested in writing to the Coastal Commission can email or write to

Nancy Cave 
California Coastal Commission 
45 Fremont Street Suite 2000
San Francisco, CA 94105

This coastal hearing is specifically being held in Sonoma County, due to the vast public outcry and insistence on having a voice in the matter.

It is our duty to support our local Coastal Volunteer organizations now more than ever. Our oceans are in Crisis. Increased development and commercialization can only result in further degradation of the precious balance needed for survival. We need to regain our voice in the CCC! In this age of ever-increasing greed and ego, it is time for CHANGE! A change giving the environment rights; rights to remain wild and free, no longer categorized as a resource to be exploited.


Nancy Cave 
California Coastal Commission 
45 Fremont Street Suite 2000
San Francisco, CA 94105


Dear Nancy Cave and the Coastal Commission,

I have an idea that I think could raise money to maintain our most popular beaches while benefitting local artists and artisans along the California Coast. 

Instead of IRON RANGERS, use that location for a Portable Merchant Trailer.  The trailer would be a small store on wheels so it does not have to remain at the beach entrance every day and night. It can be brought home at night and during days when selling goods would be difficult because of bad weather or poor beach attendance. Small trailers that can be pulled behind a pickup truck would suffice.

The trailer would sell items where a percentage of sales would go to maintain the staff of the trailer and the trailer itself, the artists who supply the goods to be sold - and the State Beach it is supporting. This would function i the same way a Visitors Center functions but be small and portable. It could be set up next to restrooms just as easily as at the entrance to a beach park.

ITEMS SOLD could be:

•    post cards and greeting cards of images created by local photographers and artists of our beautiful coast, critters, etc.

•    Jewelry that features coast, beach, sea life themes

•    stuffed animals of coastal critters

•    wind mobiles of coastal critters

•    books on sea life, coastal restoration, etc. with educational content

•    maps and guides to beach access, trails, etc.

•    binoculars and other ways to see distant sea life

•    puzzles and games of coastal images

•    kites and wind toys

•    souvenirs

The trailer would take up about the same about of space as an iron ranger

Because it would be staffed and removed at night it would not be subject to vandalism

It would allow beach access to EVERYONE yet people who have money and desire to purchase the goods would be paying the fees to keep the park maintained.

I doubt anyone would have objections to this way of raising money. It would provide one or more local jobs, support local artists and promote coastal environmental awareness. I think this could be a win/win for everyone.

In Sonoma County this could probably be run by the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods who already run two Visitors Centers and a mobile educational truck.

Please consider this option for supporting our FREE Beaches.


Thank you,

Vesta Copestakes

Forestville, Sonoma County beach lover

Please bring this COMMENT to the attention of whoever is in charge of making up the deficit of $34,000 that is reportedly driving the California Coastal Commission to impose fees along our Sonoma County coast.

I'm not rich but I did earn a good retirement from Kaiser and am ready to tap my earnings in order to buy some time for the state to look at more socially-inclusive and autonomous Sonoma County actions on this issue.

I have tried to e-mail the Coastal Commissioners but they do not give out their e-mail addresses.

They are holding a meeting in Santa Rosa on April 13-15 and I would like for them not to have to worry about this agenda item.

Could you also let Governor Brown know that I have sent him an e-mail? It's been 3 days and I haven't had any response.

Many thanks,

Laura Morgan, MD
Occidental Health Center